Your guide to Sanditon, Jane Austen’s last unfinished work

Jane Austen’s unfinished novel Sanditon – set in a fictional seaside resort of the same name – was inherited by the author’s sister following her death in 1817. But what is known about the plot that Austen intended? And which real places might have inspired the setting for the novel? Historian and author Helen Amy explores

'Sanditon' - an adaption of Jane Austen's unfinished novel of the same name – is currently airing in the UK on ITV. Pictured: Clara Brereton (played by Lily Sacofsky), Esther Denham (Charlotte Spencer), Lady Denham (Anne Reid) and Edward Denham (Jack Fox). (Photo by RED PLANET/ITV)

Jane Austen had been unwell for over a year when she began to write another novel on 27 January 1817. This work, which was never finished, was referred to by its author as The Brothers, as the two main male characters are siblings, but her family later called it Sanditon, after the place in which it is set.

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Austen discussed the characters with her niece Anna Lefroy (1793–1872), who was attempting to write a novel herself, but she did not discuss the plot or how the story would end. Austen probably also read the completed chapters to her sister Cassandra, who had always been involved in Austen’s writing and was immensely proud of her literary achievements.

Writing Sanditon was a struggle for Austen due to her deteriorating health, but it served as a distraction from her illness, which is believed to have been either Addison’s Disease, a disorder of the adrenal system, or some kind of lymphoma. Austen told her niece that she still found “pleasure in composition”. The latter part of the manuscript was written in pencil because Austen became too weak to hold a pen,and on 18 March her illness forced her to abandon the novel altogether. She had completed eleven chapters and nine pages of a twelfth. The author died four months later, at the age of 41.

English novelist Jane Austen. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
English novelist Jane Austen. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

The manuscript of Sanditon was inherited by Cassandra, who read and discussed it with other family members. When Cassandra died in 1845 the manuscript was inherited by Anna Lefroy, who attempted unsuccessfully to complete the novel. It was then passed down the Lefroy family until 1930, when it was given to King’s College, Cambridge, where Anna’s nephew Augustus Austen-Leigh had been provost from 1889 to 1905. Another copy of the manuscript, made by Cassandra Austen, was inherited by her brother Francis and passed down his family. It is now in the Jane Austen Museum at Chawton in Hampshire.

Sanditon first came to public notice in 1871 in the second edition of Memoir of Jane Austen and Other Family Recollections– the first biography of Austen written by her nephew James Edward Austen-Leigh. He included a précis [summary] of the work and some quotations. Sanditon next appeared in print when it was transcribed by the literary scholar RW Chapman and published in 1925 with the title Fragment of a Novel. A Penguin edition of Sanditon was also published in 1974 with an introduction by Margaret Drabble.

Plot, themes and characters

Austen’s final piece of writing shows that her illness had not affected her mental abilities and that her creative muse had not deserted her. It contains the same humour, wit, comedy, satire and brilliant characterisation as her other works.

Sanditon, like the other novels, is about the lives of a few families, but instead of the usual setting of a country village it is set in a rapidly developing seaside resort on the south coast. Some readers have identified Sanditon as Worthing, where Austen spent some weeks in the summer and autumn of 1805. Her fictional places were never based on real locations, but instead contained features of a number of different places she knew. The author’s intention, as she stated, was “to create and not to reproduce”. The television series based on Sanditon was filmed in the north Somerset town of Clevedon and on the nearby beach at Brean.

The heroine of Sanditon is Charlotte Heywood, the daughter of a country gentleman from Willingden in Sussex, and all of the action is seen through her eyes. She is staying with Mr Parker and his wife at their home in Sanditon, which is described as a “young bathing-place”. Mr Parker has discovered the commercial possibilities of Sanditon;he has let out his home, which has belonged to his family for generations, and built a house overlooking the new resort – going into partnership with the wealthy widow Lady Denham to exploit this potential. The development of Sanditon into a money-spinning seaside resort has become his obsession, and he talks of little else.

In the late 18th century, seaside holidays became very popular due to the prevailing belief in the healing properties of sea air and sea water. Jane Austen was not alone in being alarmed at the impact of developing resorts, such as Brighton and Eastbourne, on the beautiful coastline of England. She expresses this concern in Sanditon.

Soon after her arrival in Sanditon, the heroine meets some of the local inhabitants. These include Lady Denham, who is described as a “great lady”, but it soon becomes apparent that she is, in fact, a mean and unpleasant woman. The astute Charlotte sees through the façade of Lady Denham and the other characters and works out their motivations. All is not as it seems on the surface.

Lady Denham’s nephew and niece, Sir Edward Denham and his sister Esther, who have an eye on their aunt’s fortune, are next to be introduced to Charlotte. Edward is a vain, tiresome and comical character with a seductive charm about him. He likes reading sentimental novels and quoting famous poets. Despite his obvious faults, Charlotte finds him “agreeable”. Lady Denham is quick to point out that her nephew must marry an heiress, to warn Charlotte against falling for his charms. Clara Brereton, who lives with Lady Denham, is another niece. She is beautiful and sweet, but suffers from the serious disadvantages of being poor and dependent on her aunt.

Edward Denham (Jack Fox) and Esther Denham (Charlotte Spencer) in ITV's 'Sanditon'. (Photo by RED PLANET/ITV
Edward Denham (Jack Fox) and Esther Denham (Charlotte Spencer) in ITV’s ‘Sanditon’. (Photo by RED PLANET/ITV

Charlotte meets Mr Parker’s sisters and brother, who are all self-obsessed hypochondriacs, when they turn up unexpectedly. Diana Parker has come to find a house for a group from a girls boarding school, who want to spend the summer at Sanditon. This pleases her brother who is anxious to attract visitors to the resort. The school party includes a Miss Lambe, a wealthy 17-year-old from the West Indies who is in delicate health. When Lady Denham hears of the imminent arrival of a young lady of fortune she immediately thinks of her as a potential wife for her nephew Edward.

The next person to arrive at Sanditon is another brother of Mr Parker. Sidney Parker is described as “about seven or eight-and-twenty, very good-looking, with a decided air of ease and fashion, and a lively countenance”. He is clearly intended to be the novel’s hero – and, therefore, the character who will likely win the hand of the heroine.

In the final scene of this novel fragment Charlotte visits Sanditon House, the home of Lady Denham. She spots Sir Edward Denham engaged in an intimate conversation with Clara Brereton in the romantic setting of a misty garden and concludes that they are having a secret love affair.

A prominent theme in Sanditon, which emanates from the author’s concern about the changes she was witnessing around her, is the contrast between the old world and the new. The inland unspoilt village of Sanditon represents the old and the developing resort represents the new. The Heywood family stand for the past – the quiet, unadventurous, traditional life of the English country gentry, whose money came from the land they owned or from one of the professions. The Parker family, who have left the old ways behind, stand for the change and progress of the future, funded by commerce and motivated by profit.

Although a number of authors – such as Marie Dobbs in the 1970s – have completed this unfinished novel, we can only speculate how the characters and the story would have developed if Austen had lived to finish it herself.

What obstacles would Charlotte have had to overcome, and which rivals would she have had to see off, before she married the handsome hero? Would Edward Denham have married the beautiful but impoverished Clara Brereton against the wishes of his aunt, and, thus, excluded himself from the possibility of inheriting her fortune? Would Mr Parker have succeeded in his dream of turning Sanditon into a thriving and profitable seaside resort, or would he and Lady Denham have lost the money they invested in their speculative scheme? We will never know.

One thing we can be certain of, however, is that if Jane Austen had completed, revised and polished Sanditonto her usual high standard it would have added to her stature as a novelist and brought much pleasure to generations of readers.

Helen Amy is the author of Jane Austen’s England(Amberley Publishing, 2017)

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An eight-episode drama based on the unfinished novel is currently airing on ITV.